A walk with Dr. Wallace J. Nichols illuminates the Slow Coast Movement, the ‘long now’ and what's really in a name
We all know the area. That long stretch of Highway 1 that weaves along the cliffs, between hills, forests and farmland beginning just north of Santa Cruz at Wilder Ranch and ending south of Half Moon Bay just past San Gregorio. It's a region of undeniable beauty and tangible calm. A place where time seems to move a little slower, perhaps on an older more natural cycle. A certain Dr. Wallace 'J' Nichols, his partner Dana Nichols and other like-minded people in the area are working on keeping it that way.
"We're lucky here," says Nichols, walking in the crisp morning air along Swanton Road with his black and white Newfoundland, Fisher. "This isn't about rebuilding something, it's about hanging onto it."
A large part of the Slow Coast movement is simply to give a name to an area that people (both residents and passers-through) have come to cherish.
"When you name things, it gives them status and stature in human society," says Wallace. "When you give it a name it's a something. If it goes unnamed it in a way is invisible ... This is a very special stretch of coast and region of the world and its name is not well established, not really clear."
The stretch of coast and surrounding farmlands and preserves is known as the North Coast to Santa Cruzans and as part of the Central Coast to most everyone else. Nichols and others believe the name “the Slow Coast” could serve to define and unite the area geographically as well as ideologically.
"I think the name can [add] more identity to it," says Dana. "Our hope is that we'll put a little light on these beautiful places and have people enjoy, care for, and recognize it the way that we do."
So why the Slow Coast? There is a broader slow movement afoot (perhaps encapsulated best in Carl Honore's book "In Praise of Slowness"), Wallace explains, between pointing out houses along Swanton and telling with endearing pride what the people who live within them do. A certain way of taking one's time, using handcrafted and hand-grown goods and being involved in the local community. "It's not a new idea," he says. "It's the way things are done in lots of places still and the way things were done most places not too long ago."
Wallace was careful to express that the Slow Coast movement isn't an attempt to change or shape the region in any way.
"It's not 'we discovered this slow movement let's become a part of it.' I think this area is sort of the epitome of it, it's not trying to become it, it's just trying to stay it. It's not about slowing things down here," he jokes, gesturing to the tranquil empty road, "as you can see!"
The region the Slow Coast could come to represent is known throughout the state, if not the world, for its organic farming methods and sustainable ranching and forestry practices. It's home to many already revered stops, such as Swanton Berry Farm and the Pie Ranch, known for their uniqueness and character second only to the quality of their goods.
"Well, I think it's great," says Jim Cochran, owner of Swanton Berry Farm of the Slow Coast idea. "It really sort of captures the way a lot of us feel about the coast. Most everybody who lives along here has a real sense of protectiveness about what it is that we have here."
Cochran, who began Swanton Berry Farms as the first organic strawberry producer in the state more than 25 years ago, and Wallace converse in the rustic honor-til system shop, parts of their conversation bespeaking the connectedness of the community perhaps more than their outright statements. ("You know Mike, the fish guy?" "Yeah, from up on?" "Yeah.")
Cochran is optimistic about the future as the Slow Coast. "You have to look around at all it is that we could do,” he says. “Let’s think about how we could do a little more work together."
Indeed, another big part of the Slow Coast movement that could facilitate people working together more is the idea of having a local currency in the area. So far the idea is in its beginning phases but the Nichols have begun talking with friend-of- many-friends Christopher Lindstrom, a local-currencies theorist who has worked on many different local currencies including the successful Ithaca Hour.
"Organic farmers, because of competition, undervalue their products," says Dana. "Part of what alternative currencies really help protect is the value of what people produce. You're not dealing with dollar value, you're sort of thinking about the items and hours it took to make and produce something."
Wallace gives an even more empirical take on the subject: "You can go to Safeway and get a pie for $4.99 and save a lot of money. It's got a whole bunch of calories, tastes pretty good. Not that good but it'll do. So people need to slow down and think 'well why is that one worth $20 and that one worth five?' And I think having that local currency is sort of like an ambassador to that idea in the form of a piece of paper."
Leaving Swanton Berry Farm to continue the trek along the coast, Wallace admits he feels slightly hesitant about being labeled as spokesman for the Slow Coast movement. He does live in the area (though for "eight years, only" in his words) with Dana and their two daughters and did come up with the name for the region quite appropriately on a four day walk up the coast to San Francisco, but remains sensitive to those he regards as his seniors in the area.
"It was interesting to think about how to present this idea to a group of people who are working on the Slow Coast, farming everyday—they are what makes this a special place—and not come across as an outsider,” he says. “It's like 'you guys know way more [about] what you're doing than I do, and here's what I think we can offer to the mix'."
What Wallace modestly offers are undergrad degrees in biology and Spanish, a master's in natural resource economics, and a doctorate degree in evolutionary biology. He travels much of the world as a researcher and keynote speaker on marine biology (among other things) and as an organizer of conservation efforts from Indonesia to Baja. All of this, combined with his easygoing attitude and love of the Slow Coast region and its inhabitants, seems to suggest he's cut from the right cloth for the task at hand.
Dana is no second-fiddle herself (forgive the colloquialism) with training in organic food production and preparation, a keen interest in and understanding of health, and a finger on the creative pulse of the region. "There's so many artists of incredible talent here," she says. "All hidden."
What, I ask, coming to the end of a long walk along the coastal cliffs just north of Santa Cruz, would you say slow thinking is really all about?
"There's an enlightened sort of movement to get people to think in the now and there's this parallel progressive movement that's asking people to think in terms of seven generations, or at least one generation," says Wallace, stepping in uneven steps along the railroads tracks. "It's just interesting that both of those things are happening at the same time. So maybe slow thinking is about combining both of those things at the same time ... the long term now."
This way of life isn't for everybody, Wallace admits, but that's not what the Slow Coast movement is about.
"The world is not gonna slow down. It's just gonna keep getting faster, and the solution to our biggest societal problems is not just telling everybody to slow down—they're not gonna," he says, smiling as he looks up the coast. "This isn't a 'save the world' idea, it's just a 'take care of here' idea."
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